The Resolution Reached with Difficulty
by Patrick Castillo
No composer in the Western canon has so completely captivated the popular imagination as Beethoven. The onset of deafness while yet in his early thirties, which Beethoven overcame to create the most iconic works in the classical repertoire, is an indelible part of our cultural mythology. The magnitude of his creative output, produced at the expense of meaningful social or romantic relationships, has amplified his stature as the prototypical tortured, heroic artist. The lilting opening strains of the Moonlight Sonata, Fate’s ominous four-note knock at the door that begins the Fifth Symphony, the triumphant Ode to Joy—these have become universal shorthand for the highs and lows of life’s rich pageant.
So has Beethoven himself become emblematic of the classical tradition at large. He is known to generations of Peanuts readers as the object of Schroeder’s obsession. It is Beethoven, not Bach or Brahms, whom Chuck Berry implores to “roll over” to make room for these rhythm and blues. But on the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, Beethoven’s music endures, as compelling and irresistible as ever.
Several of the solo piano and symphonic works will surely account for the most immediately familiar of Beethoven’s music to the lay listener. But his body of chamber music represents the most significant contribution to the chamber literature, certainly by any composer between Haydn and Brahms, and arguably of any era. In their expressive ambition and sheer technical demands, Beethoven’s chamber works transferred the art form from the purview of skilled amateurs in private salons into the hands of elite virtuosi, to be played in public concert halls. And perhaps more than any other part of his output, a survey of Beethoven’s chamber music consolidates our understanding of the essence of his art.
On the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, Beethoven’s music endures, as compelling and irresistible as ever.
It was in the arena of chamber music that Beethoven, as a 24-year-old piano virtuoso newly arrived in Vienna, announced himself to that city’s musical public. For his first published compositions, he chose a set of three piano trios, including the blustery Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 (1794–95)—an early example of Beethoven’s signature C minor music (the Fifth Symphony, Pathétique Sonata, et al.). Beethoven premiered the trios at the home of a wealthy patron, Prince Carl von Lichnowsky, with violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh and cellist Anton Kraft, two of Vienna’s most prominent musicians. With some dozen or more chamber works already under his belt, composed in Bonn and during his early days in Vienna, the unveiling of these Trios as his Opus 1 represented a bold and deliberate decision. Beethoven’s teacher, Joseph Haydn, had played a pathbreaking role in elevating the piano trio genre from what C.P.E. Bach characterized as “Sonatas for Piano, which may equally well be played solo, or accompanied by violin and violoncello” to chamber music of the highest sophistication. In making his debut with a form so closely associated with Haydn, the notoriously headstrong Beethoven put the public on notice that an important new musical voice had arrived. (As Beethoven prepared the Trios for publication, Haydn advised that he withhold the C minor Trio, feeling it out of step with Viennese tastes; when that Trio proved the most popular of the set, Beethoven suspected Haydn of jealousy and professional sabotage. He forewent the custom of appending “pupil of Haydn” to his name in the published score.)
Such early works as the Opus 1 Trios, the Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, Op. 16 (1796) (modeled after Mozart’s quintet in the same key and for the same instrumentation), and the Three String Trios, Op. 9 (1797–98) reflect a mastery of the tradition inherited from his 18th-century forebears. The most significant products of this period are unquestionably the Six String Quartets, Op. 18 (1798–1800), the apotheosis of another form crystallized by and inherited from Haydn. These inaugurate Beethoven’s cycle of 16 quartets, which endures as the cornerstone of the quartet literature.
Yet in 1803, Beethoven declared, “I am not satisfied with what I have composed up to now. From now on I intend to embark on a new path.” (He even came to disdain one of his most popular works, the delightful Biedermeier favorite Septet in E-flat major for Winds and Strings, Op. 20 (1799), later deriding it as having been written by Mozart.) This new path is manifested in the music of Beethoven’s so-called “heroic” period, a time whose fecundity matched its music’s expressive power. It was also during this time that the composer’s worsening deafness became a personal crisis. Beethoven responded with music that was epic and defiant. In 1806 alone, he completed his Fourth Symphony, Fourth Piano Concerto, Violin Concerto, Appassionata Sonata, and, in the realm of chamber music, the three Opus 59 Razumovsky Quartets (1806), works of unprecedented dramatic intensity and virtuosity. The Razumovskys mark a transformation of both Beethoven’s creative aspirations and the very string quartet medium. “Oh, they are not for you,” Beethoven remarked to the confounded violinist Felix Radicati, “but for a later age!”
Alongside the Razumovskys and two subsequent quartets—the eloquent Harp Quartet (1809) and muscular Serioso Quartet (1810–11)—the heroic period also produced three further bona fide masterpieces in the piano trio genre: the Two Trios, op. 70 (1808) (including the Ghost Trio, so nicknamed because its haunting slow movement evoked for Carl Czerny the ghost of Hamlet’s father), and the majestic Trio in B-flat major, Op. 97 (1811), known as the Archduke. This latter work, named for the Archduke Rudolph (brother to Emperor Leopold II and Beethoven’s longtime student and patron), was premiered in 1814 by Schuppanzigh, cellist Joseph Linke, and Beethoven, by now nearly stone deaf, at the piano. The composer Louis Spohr attended the concert and recorded his account: “In forte passages the poor deaf man pounded on the keys until the strings jangled, and in piano he played so softly that whole groups of notes were omitted.” It was Beethoven’s final public performance.
In addition to his worsening deafness, further personal and emotional crises marked Beethoven’s later years. His legendary romantic frustrations reached a boiling point over the “Immortal Beloved,” the unnamed addressee of an unsent letter found among Beethoven’s effects after his death (“I can only live either wholly with you or not at all … O God why do I have to separate from someone whom I love so much, and yet my life in V[ienna] as it is now is a miserable life – Your love makes me at once most happy and most unhappy – at my age, I need a steady, quiet life – can it be so in our connection?”). On the death of his brother in 1815, Beethoven, whose fitness to raise a child was questionable at best, assumed custody of his nephew, Karl; their difficult relationship culminated in Karl’s unsuccessful suicide attempt in 1826.
Perhaps in Beethoven’s wretchedness and gradual withdrawal from society, we might find some pathway to the music of his late period—works so visionary that they continue to challenge and inspire listeners more than two centuries hence. One feels his intensifying inwardness to be a kind of vision quest, distilling his musical ideas into their purest and most sublime form. His final three years were concentrated on the string quartet, a medium in which he had not composed since 1811. Now Beethoven created music of such imposing power that generations of composers since have not ceased to feel its weight. After hearing the String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1825–26), an overwhelmed Franz Schubert wondered, “What is left for us to write?”
Beethoven’s career came to a close with the String Quartet in F major, Op. 135 (1826), a work at once as visionary as the other four late quartets while looking back to the Haydnesque grace of his Opus 18. Opus 135 is best known for its final movement, whose manuscript Beethoven inscribed with the title: “Der schwer gefaßte Entschluß” (“The resolution reached with difficulty”). Accompanying the movement’s mysterious opening three-note melody are the words, “Muß es sein?” (“Must it be?”) The answer comes in the melody’s inversion, which begins the movement’s Allegro section: “Es muß sein!” (“It must be!”) Though evidently meant as a joke—an amateur violinist had requested free copies of the Opus 130 Quartet; when told he would have to pay, he asked, dismayed, “Muß es sein?”—Beethoven’s assertive rejoinder may equally well serve as an artistic credo animating the whole of his life and work.
—© 2020 Patrick Castillo
Watch the Beethoven Celebration
See the full program of the Beethoven Celebration, streaming all day December 16 starting at 10:00 AM ET.
Learn more about the works being performed with additional lectures led by David Finckel, Bruce Adolphe, and Michael Parloff here.